Weight Loss
Updated: Sep 9, 2022

9 Reasons for Increased Appetite in Women

9 Reasons for Increased Appetite in Women
Published: Sep 9, 2022

A sudden increase in appetite may indicate a medical condition or the need to make dietary or lifestyle adjustments. Increased appetite can cause uncomfortable stomach cramping and burning, headaches, and symptoms of low blood sugar. Most people can go several hours between meals, but some people experience constant hunger.

Excessive hunger is a sign that your body needs more energy, but it can also lead to weight gain and changes in body composition if you consume more calories than your body can use. Assessing your diet and lifestyle may help you understand why you’re hungry. If not due to diet or lifestyle choices, increased hunger could be an indication of a medical condition or may mean that you’re not eating enough calories to fuel your body’s needs.

Before considering medical conditions that increase appetite, see if one of these common dietary or lifestyle causes of increased hunger explains your symptoms: 

  • Lack of protein: Protein triggers the release of ghrelin, which tells your brain you are full.
  • Lack of fiber: High-fiber foods slow stomach emptying and take longer to digest than low-fiber foods.1
  • Insulin spikes: Refined or simple carbohydrates cause a spike in your blood sugar followed by a sharp decrease. Low blood sugar causes hunger. 
  • Poor quality or inadequate sleep: Extended lack of sleep causes increased ghrelin levels, a hormone that triggers hunger, and decreased leptin, an appetite-inhibiting hormone. It also causes increased cravings for carbohydrates.2
  • Increased exercise: Increased physical activity can trigger an increased demand for energy. Engaging in vigorous exercise can increase metabolic rate, which causes increased hunger.3 
  • Dehydration: Every chemical reaction in the body needs water. Dehydration can affect metabolism and appetite. 

Medication side effects, changes in hormone levels, and mental health conditions can also affect appetite. Here are some of the most common ones that cause increased appetite in women. 

Hormonal Imbalance

Hormones are chemical messengers that have effects throughout the body. In many cases, hormones act as a pair and have opposite effects on hunger and appetite. Sometimes, a decrease or increase in a single hormone affects hunger. An imbalance between the two hormones, or excess or inadequate secretion of one hormone, can cause increased hunger and weight gain. 

Hormone pairs that control aspects of hunger and weight:4 

  • Ghrelin and leptin: Ghrelin increases hunger after you think about food or in response to an empty stomach, and leptin decreases it.
  • Estrogen and progesterone: Estrogen decreases hunger, and progesterone increases both hunger and energy usage. Decreased estrogen causes increases in total body fat.
  • Insulin and glucagon: Insulin increases blood sugar, and glucagon decreases it. 

Hormones that control appetite by adjusting hormone secretion:

  • Thyroid: Excessive thyroid hormone secretion increases metabolism and hunger. 
  • Cortisol: Increases in cortisol as a response to stress trigger a demand for energy and hunger.

Hormone imbalances affect sleep and mood, which can also affect appetite. While some hormone imbalances can only be corrected by medical treatment, lifestyle changes can also help. Read 7 ways to naturally regulate your hormones

a pregnant woman

Pregnancy

Pregnancy is associated with an increased appetite to support the baby’s need for nutrients and calories. A sudden increase or decrease in hunger while pregnant, especially when associated with rapid weight changes, should prompt a call to your doctor. 

However, appetite and weight can also affect your chances of getting pregnant. Hormones can affect both appetite and the menstrual cycle, which can lead to infertility. Fat tissue produces estrogen. When your body weight falls below a healthy weight, estrogen levels drop, and ovulation ceases. Excessive exercise, weight loss, excessive stress, and eating disorders can all cause infertility.5 

Menopause

Menopause is a transition after which estrogen levels plummet. You know you have passed through menopause when you have not had a period for 12 consecutive months. Perimenopause is the period before and after menopause when hormones begin to fluctuate. During this period, hormone fluctuations can cause physical, emotional, and sexual symptoms. Many of which may be improved by medications and nutrients in the sexual health treatment plans

Estrogen (estrone, estriol, and estradiol) decreases hunger. Estrogen declines after menopause are associated with increased total body fat, increased abdominal fat, and decreased lean body mass. Overall, weight is usually not affected. However, most women notice a weight gain and increased hunger in the perimenopause and menopause phases. 

A decrease in lean body mass decreases calorie burn throughout the day. Weight gain in the perimenopausal and post-menopause phases is thought to be related to decreases in physical activity and sleep disturbances rather than hormone changes. Age management treatment plans can help mitigate weight gain secondary to aging and decreased lean muscle mass. 

woman eating pizza

Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS)

Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) is a common endocrine disorder that is defined by these three symptoms: irregular periods, excess androgens, and polycystic ovaries. PCOS can also cause infertility, excessive hair growth on the face, chest, abdomen and upper thighs, severe acne, and patches of thickened, velvety, darkened skin. 

Most women with PCOS have at least some degree of insulin resistance. This is made worse by being overweight or having obesity. Fluctuations in blood glucose are common in PCOS, which can cause precipitous blood sugar drops and hunger. Weight loss can improve insulin resistance and PCOS symptoms. Even a 5% to 10% weight loss can cause a change in body composition, improving insulin sensitivity and reducing androgen levels.6

Cushing’s Syndrome

Cushing’s syndrome is caused by inappropriately high cortisol levels, commonly called the stress hormone. Cortisol is released when your body is under stress. It mobilizes glucose from the liver and makes it available for the brain and other body cells to use as a ready energy source. Cortisol causes cravings for sweet, fatty, and salty foods. These foods are typically high in calories. 

Symptoms associated with high cortisol levels include:

  • Weight gain, especially in the abdomen and face
  • Wide, purple stretch marks (stria), especially on the abdomen
  • Thinning, fragile skin
  • Excess facial and body hair
  • Headaches
  • High blood sugar
  • High blood pressure
  • Osteoporosis
  • Shoulder and hip muscle weakness

Cushing’s syndrome can also cause irregular periods, decreased libido, and other sexual health symptoms that sexual health treatment plans may help with.

Depression

Depression and the medications used to treat it can affect appetite. In some people, depression causes a decrease in appetite, while in others, it causes an increase. Symptoms of depression, including fatigue and sleep problems, can also affect appetite, as can stress eating or eating to improve mood.  

Researchers from several German university hospitals used brain scans to investigate the relationship between depression and appetite. 

They found that the connection between the reward system in the brain and regions of the brain involved in value judgment and memory decreased when people with depression experienced a decrease in appetite. 

The connection between the reward system and the parts of the brain where taste and bodily systems are processed had a weaker connection in people who experienced an increase in appetite.7

Anxiety 

Anxiety, like depression, can cause an increase or decrease in appetite. Anxiety can cause a stress response in your body and an increase in cortisol secretion. When your cortisol levels increase, your appetite and cravings also increase. 

Other people respond to anxiety by losing their appetite. Indigestion, nausea, constipation, or diarrhea, along with increased heart rate and muscle tension, can cause uncomfortable feelings that may lead to appetite loss. 

woman eating a salad

Thyroid Conditions

The thyroid gland produces triiodothyronine (T3) and thyroxine (T4) thyroid hormones. These hormones affect every cell in the body. The thyroid gland and the hypothalamus, a part of the brain, work together to control energy balance and body weight. 

Functions of thyroid hormone include: 

  • Increases metabolism 
  • Increases body temperature
  • Increases protein synthesis
  • Can influence libido, fertility, and other reproductive functions
  • Can increase the body’s sensitivity to epinephrine and norepinephrine

Increased thyroid hormone causes increased hunger to support the body’s increased metabolic demand. 

Symptoms of increased thyroid hormone include:

  • Weight loss
  • Hot flushes
  • Diarrhea
  • Irritability
  • Mood swings
  • Swollen thyroid: base of the neck
  • Prominent eyes
  • Fast heart rate
  • Shaking hands
  • Weakness
  • Insomnia
  • Hair loss

Thyroid hormone may stimulate the appetite control centers in the brain or it may act locally on specific body tissues.8 More research is needed to completely understand the relationship between thyroid hormone and weight. 

Medications

Some medications affect metabolism and hunger hormones and, therefore, can cause hunger. 

Some medications in the following drug classes are associated with increases in appetite:9

  • Oral contraceptives
  • Corticosteroids
  • Antipsychotics
  • Tricyclic antidepressants
  • Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors
  • Monoamine oxidase inhibitors
  • Antihistamines
  • Antiseizure medications
  • Beta-blockers
  • Alpha-blockers
  • Calcium channel blockers
  • Opioids
  • Lithium
  • Diabetes medications

Disclaimer

While we strive to always provide accurate, current, and safe advice in all of our articles and guides, it’s important to stress that they are no substitute for medical advice from a doctor or healthcare provider. You should always consult a practicing professional who can diagnose your specific case. The content we’ve included in this guide is merely meant to be informational and does not constitute medical advice. 

References

1. Chambers L, McCrickerd K, Yeomans MR. Optimising foods for satiety. Trends in Food Science & Technology. 2015/02/01/ 2015;41(2):149-160. doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tifs.2014.10.007

2. Knutson KL. Impact of sleep and sleep loss on glucose homeostasis and appetite regulation. Sleep Med Clin. Jun 2007;2(2):187-197. doi:10.1016/j.jsmc.2007.03.004

3. Blundell JE, Caudwell P, Gibbons C, et al. Role of resting metabolic rate and energy expenditure in hunger and appetite control: a new formulation. Dis Model Mech. Sep 2012;5(5):608-13. doi:10.1242/dmm.009837

4. Chopra S, Sharma K, Ranjan P, Malhotra A, Vikram N, Kumari A. Weight management module for perimenopausal women: A practical guide for gynecologists. Review Article. J Midlife Health. October 1, 2019 2019;10(4):165-172. doi:10.4103/jmh.JMH_155_19

5. Nelson LR, Bulun SE. Estrogen production and action. Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology. 2001;45(3):S116-S124. doi:10.1067/mjd.2001.117432

6. Barber TM, Hanson P, Weickert MO, Franks S. Obesity and Polycystic Ovary Syndrome: Implications for Pathogenesis and Novel Management Strategies. Clinical Medicine Insights: Reproductive Health. 2019/01/01 2019;13:1179558119874042. doi:10.1177/1179558119874042

7. Exploring the Role of Appetite Change in Depression. Neuroscience News; 2022. https://neurosciencenews.com/appetite-depression-21285/

8. Amin A, Dhillo WS, Murphy KG. The Central Effects of Thyroid Hormones on Appetite. Journal of Thyroid Research. 2011/05/25 2011;2011:306510. doi:10.4061/2011/3065109. Ratliff JC, Barber JA, Palmese LB, Reutenauer EL, Tek C. Association of prescription H1 antihistamine use with obesity: results from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. Obesity (Silver Spring). Dec 2010;18(12):2398-400. doi:10.1038/oby.2010.176

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